Thirdeyemom

East versus West: My first bout with Chinese culture shock

Culture shock (noun):

a sense of confusion, discomfort, disorientation, and uncertainty felt by those exposed to a different cultural environment.

Even the statues have a third-eye….yet where was mine?

I woke up Saturday morning feeling foggy and confused.  Where am I again? I wondered half-awake.  Somehow or another, I managed to get four and half hours of alcohol-induced sleep yet my body was still terribly confused.  For it was 8 pm Friday night back home in Minneapolis and 8 am in Beijing.   I told myself that I just had to get through the first day as it is always the hardest.  Jet lag sucks.

I took a shower, and peered out the window of our hotel room.  Life outside was full of activity and noise.  Yet the sky looked like dirty water after washing the floor.  It was flat, gray, thick and dark.  Hmmm….was that what everyone said about Chinese pollution?  My mind returned back to last year’s trip to India and I realized without a doubt, yep here we go again.  Prepare myself to not see the real color of the sky or sun for the next ten days unless there is a magical lifting of the thick blanket of smog. That was my first experience with culture shock number 1.  Pollution.

The pesky, loud birds being sold directly across the street outside my hotel. 

I headed downstairs for breakfast.  Our hotel offered a splendid buffet included in the cost of our room.  I was actually hungry as it was dinner time for me.  I waltzed into the dining area, made myself my own personal espresso and then took a look around to investigate the offerings.  That was culture shock number 2 (it wasn’t even 9 o’clock yet!).  The food.

Don’t worry…this wasn’t our hotel buffet.  It was some of the street food sold directly outside our hotel every night. Here are legs and sometimes foots of pig.

Ok, I understood that I was in China and was prepared with the unfortunate knowledge that Chinese food is the one and only kind of food I cannot stand.  Yet I was hoping that perhaps Chinese food would be different in China, maybe even better.  Not the American over-greasy, over-fried and over-MSGed grub.  Well, it was different that is for sure.  But in my American eyes, it was shockingly different.  There were fish with heads on, friend rice for breakfast, and God knows what in the silver heated buffet trays.  I took in a whiff and suddenly felt sick.  How in the heck am I going to manage here?  Yet thank goodness I found the Western breakfast nearby.  You could get a prepared omelette or eggs by the egg chef or as much bread, jam and cheese as your heart desired.  They even had corn flakes!  So instead of diving into the fried rice or raw fish for breakfast, I went for what my body knows.  My third-eye was suddenly disappearing.

View of our soviet-exterior styled hotel (which was actually a highly rated and fabulous hotel) from across the street.  Look at the pollution in the air.

We left the hotel by 10 am to start our day exploring Beijing.  We didn’t really have a game plan for the first day since we knew we would be so tired.  Our only plan was to walk until we drop.  As we opened the door and headed out into the bustling streets of Beijing, I was hit with culture shock number 3.  The people.  We were instantly surrounded by black-haired Chinese people everywhere we turned.  As an American, I am so used to the diversity of people even in Minnesota that I found the sea of black-headed people all dressed in black, gray and blue to be a big shock.  Where were the Somalis, the Mexicans, the blonds, the red-heads, the African-Americans?  No where in sight.  It felt incredibly awkward to be two relatively tall Scandinavian looking Minnesotans in the heart of Beijing, a city of over 20 million people with one of the highest population densities of people per square foot in the world.

As we walked down Donghuamen Street, the main thoroughfare leading directly to Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, I was suddenly struck with severe culture shock.  My mind started racing with doubts about coming here and I had to stop myself for a moment and remember the golden rule about culture shock.

That it happens.  It is nature.  You need to face it, deal with it, accept it, and then move on.  Culture shock is actually a process and depending on how different the host culture is compared with your culture, it is going to depend on how well and how fast you adapt.  For example, there is less culture shock traveling to a western country than an eastern one.

I knew I was extremely tired, jet-lagged and overwhelmed with my new environment.  I just had to remember to use that third-eye of mine and then everything would be fine.  The first day is always the hardest.

We had lunch at a recommended restaurant nearby our hotel.  We were the only Westerners inside but thankfully we didn’t get too many looks and felt perfectly comfortable.  I ordered cashew chicken and my dad decoded on some kind of spicy beef thing.  Beijing (also known as Peking) is famous for their Peking duck.  It is a specialty that we were told is a “must have” when you visit Beijing.  I enjoy duck so I thought I’d maybe give it a try.

I then instantly changed my mind once I saw it.   There it was, head and all, browned to a crisp and dripping with juices.  The sight of a dead, baked, not headless duck made my stomach churn.   The chef pushed the dead-baked-duck over to the next table, where he carved it tableside for the ravenous guests and then I watched how Peking duck is eaten.  Basically you take a slab of crispy fatty skin and use it as a tortilla adding vegetables and other delights inside, roll it up and enjoy.  I decided to change my mind about trying Peking duck.

My relatively tame lunch….yet where was the rice?

The now headless Peking duck….

Our lunch was good yet my body was not ready to handle such different foods.  As a preventative, I popped two pink Pepto tablets to line my stomach and keep in from harm.  Unfortunately I’ve gotten sick way too many times on past travels so I decided to be extra careful on this trip.  No lettuce, no raw veggies, no tap water and definitely no street food.

After lunch we walked over the Beijing’s premier walking street, Wangfujing, to check things out.  Once again, I was instantly inundated with culture shock.  The street food was repulsive (third-eye, where art thou?), the bright neon flashing lights too obnoxious and the floods of people everywhere, too overbearing.  We didn’t last long yet I managed to snap a ton of photos.  I couldn’t find a better way than pictures to express my serious dilemma with culture shock.

Wangfujing Walking and Shopping Street during the day.

Live Scorpions on a stick, anyone?  They are fried and eaten for special luck.

By four o’clock, we were completely wiped out.  Our feet throbbed, our brains ached and we felt a little disoriented.  It was time to have happy hour and take a few moments to decompress before heading out on our next adventure, dinner.

For such a big city, we hadn’t managed to scope out a dining choice for the night during our marathon, sightseeing walk.  Thus we had to go to Plan B:  Refer to my invaluable Lonely Planet guidebook.  Page 80 of Lonely Planet China highlighted a section of town called “Ghost Street”, a “don’t miss!” place.  The description is:

“Hopping at weekends and one of Beijing’s busiest and most colourful restaurant strips at virtually any hour.  Ghost Street is the nickname for this spirited section of Dongzhimennei Dajie, where scores of restaurants converge to feed legions of locals and out-of-towners.  Splendidly lit with red lanterns from dusk til dawn…”

After hearing the words “scores of restaurants” and “splendidly lit with red lanterns” I was in.  Yet little did I know this misadventure would only lead to furthering culture shock.

First of all, getting the correct translation of the words “Ghost Street” into Chinese took much time and many differing opinions.  The Chinese language is a complex creature and trying to convey the “correct” meaning is tricky.  Needless to say, we got it figured out after fifteen minutes and multiple disagreements among hotel staff.

Second of all, getting a cab in Beijing is no easy feat.  After many attempts to score a cab that would actually take us there, we finally just opened the door, jumped in, closed the door and then handed the cab driver the instructions “Take me to…” in Chinese.  This way there was no denying us.

Third of all, we got there an hour later thank planned, not the promised ten minute drive. The cab driver decided to take us on a little tour of Beijing so he could add on to the time.  Of course we couldn’t communicate with him and had to just sit and wait.  The fare ended up only being a few dollars so no real harm down.  But still!.

Ghost street at night.

Finally, once we arrived it was a complete red lantern, Chinese restaurant galore filled with mobs of people.  Talk about cultural overload!  Finally after walking block after block loaded with Chinese restaurants, defeated we opted on the only presentable choice:  Some kind of fancier-looking venue that had an over-the-top Charlie Trotter meets Jackie Chan menu.  It was gourmet Chinese to the extreme and there was hardly anything on the menu that I could possibly stomach to eat.  Thankfully almost everything in China is relatively cheap and after an incredibly spicy Sichuan pork dinner with chilis to kill, we were only out about $50.

My spicy, hot dinner again where was the rice?  I could have used some to cool things down. 

Ahhh….my mouth is on fire but I’m still smiling!

Exhausted, we literally jumped in a cab using the close-the-door approach, and headed back wearily to our hotel.  What a day of extremes!  My only hope was that my increasingly important third-eye would decide to show up soon and rescue me from the extreme, intense culture shock I was experiencing.

Stay tuned…next post will be a day of photographs:  First day in Beijing. I took too many pictures to put in this post and too many great ones that must be shared! 

13 comments

  1. What a great first day, Ill take a scorpion on a stick please! Great post and photos! There are some things I won’t dare try: here they make cheese with live maggots, yuck! It’s actually against the law but some families still make it and sell on the black market!

    • That sounds absolutely disgusting! I also read in China that they eat real placentas! Sometimes in shakes! I guess some people believe it helps fertility. It is of course illegal but my stomach really churned at that one. I still can’t get those darn scorpions out of my head. I even video-taped them with my phone. May have to share that as well.

  2. Some of this food does look a bit extreme. I go to Hong Kong regularly and love the Chinese food there. I love Yum Cha, even the chicken’s feet. Sometimes it is better not to know what you are eating. You really do need to talk yourself out of jet lag. I never get it, and I travel over many time zones getting to and from Europe .

    • That sounds like a much better approach! However, perhaps I am strange already as I haven’t had red meat since I was 17….when I bit into a raw hamburger that my grandfather cooked. So that has now been over half my life that I still can’t stomach red meat! As for the jet lag, on the way there I was fine. I am beginning to think a lot of it has to do with coming back to reality. Life with two active young kids tires me out. On vacation, I can actually think straight. Yet I still am waking up every hour at night. I did it when I was there too. Argggghhh….you are right, mind over matter!

  3. Jen

    OMG, I feel like I am watching fear factor where they eat things I can’t even look at. Yes, I guess food is very culturally orientated and what sounds horrible to me may be a delicacy to someone else. Like you say, it reminds us to keep a third eye and respect that we are all different. But, I still couldn’t eat a fried scorpion!!

  4. I know the feeling, oh so well. Personally, I don’t think you can talk yourself out of jet lag when you are traveling to the time zone opposite you on the globe. I’ve made the trip to and from the east coast of the US to SE Asia every two months for a year, and I never adjusted. It’s just too far. The human body, even one used to traveling a lot, is just not designed to do it. Remember the distance between Australia and Europe is half as far as you flew. Can’t wait to read more.
    Kathy

    • Thanks Kathy! I actually FINALLY SLEPT last night! I feel so much happier! It was my son’s birthday last night, seven already! and my daughter’s fifth birthday is Tuesday. So we are busy over here and not much time to recover but I’m getting there!

  5. The live scorpions would have been shocking!! I remember during my travels, the most shocking thing that I saw was in South America. They love eating Guinea Pigs. I couldn’t eat it but it was a delicacy in Peru and many of my tourista friends tried it. The world has so much variety, which makes travelling interesting 🙂

  6. Great post. Although I must say, your photo and description of the Peking Duck left me wanting to eat it! There is a great authentic Chinese restaurant in Falls Church, VA, that specializes in Peking Duck. I love it and the whole ceremony surrounding it.

    • Ok…I probably should have tried it then! I think I was just on cultural overload is all. My stomach wasn’t the happiest camper and I was so tired. Oh well…next time!

  7. Love the post! You made me remember my China trip with my wife’s family 7 years ago when you said, “where is the rice?” We were in shanghai and ventured to discover authentic chinese food(not the one with the scorpions) without our tour guide. We entered this one restaurant that was supposed to be good. When it was time to order rice, nobody knew what it translates to in Chinese . And all the staff never heard of the English word, “rice.” Finally a customer walked who knew what it was. What a relief. We were all starving by the time anyone figure out what rice is. Over all it was a memorable and fun trip. I know that you will have a great time in China. Savor each journey my friend. Be safe and take care….

  8. Pingback: First day in Beijing: A jetlagged photoblog | thirdeyemom

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